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Back to the Future and Forward to the Past

A review of Time Travel: A History


In his new book Time Travel: A History, James Gleick presents a valuable literary history of the idea of time travel while also highlighting the various paradoxes associated with the topic. Time travel too often can be considered an unserious aspect of physics and the subject only of speculative fiction. By writing this book, Gleick indicates that the paradoxes inherent in the concept should be taken seriously because solving those problems could lead to amore consistent scaffold of understanding for the role of time in theoretical physics. Gleick’s book creates an important history for the concept of time travel and makes the paradoxes clear. The author seems to have written the book in part to bring attention to the topic of time travel in the hopes that other thinkers will take the subject seriously and look for solutions to the paradoxes.

To begin, H.G.Wells still does not get enough credit for his genius. The man single-handedly invented the discipline of World History, pioneered the “invading aliens” genre, and can be fairly credited with introducing the concept of scientific time travel literature. Gleick indicates that the widespread use of trains made humans realize that their relationship to distance differed depending on speed—it was only a matter of thinking about time before someone realized that our relationship to time also differed depending on speed. Gleick writes that Wells did not bother himself much with the physics as “He was just trying to gin up a plausible-sounding plot device for a piece of fantastic story-telling” (p. 4). Yet it is possible to see how the creativity of both Wells and Einstein branched off from the same concepts.

A scientific concept of time travel originated with Wells, but philosophical and poetic musings about time and its effects preceded the great man. Gleick showcases an impressive collection of quotes about time from Tennyson, Poe, and Laplace. The second chapter then highlights “time travel” as a pop-culture phenomenon explored by Mr. Peabody, Mark Twain, and Woody Allen. The point of this discussion appears to be that Wells’ novel The Time Machine turned time travel into a mechanistic possibility when he moved beyond a concept from a Proustian work about aman who slept for a long time in a chair (a concept that Wells himself borrowed for a later work titled The Sleeper Awakes that featured a man simply sleeping for a long time in a comfortable chair). “Machines improved upon magic armchairs” writes Gleick and “By the last years of the nineteenth century, novel technology was impressing itself upon the culture” (p. 31).

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SPECIAL SECTION Skeptic’s Science Dialogues: Bill Nye in Conversation with Michael Shermer on Climate Change, Travel to Mars, Artificial Intelligence, Nuclear Power, GMOs and more… ARTICLES Miracle Water: Why Zamzam Water is Not a Valid Medical Treatment; Lone Wolf Terrorism: The Convergence of Mental Illness, Marginality, and Cyber Radicalism; Torturing Data; Mass Hallucinations and Shoddy Journalism; What Would it Take to Change Your Mind?; ET v. Earth Pathogens; Trouble in the Multiverse; Science v. Subjectivity: Football Playoff Teams Selecting College Football Playoff Teams as a Case Study COLUMNS The SkepDoc: Functional Medicine; The Gadfly: The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice REVIEWS The Stealth Determinism of Westworld—a Review of the television series Westworld; Back to the Future and Forward to the Past—a Review of Time Travel: A History; Cosmic Consciousness and the Ptolemaic Principle—a review of You Are the Universe: Discovering Your Cosmic Self and Why it Matters; Science International—a review of Courting Science: Securing the Foundation for a Second American Century; Conjuring Magic—two books on the history of magic: Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World and Making Magic: Religion, Magic, and Science in the Modern World JUNIOR SKEPTIC An Easy Guide to Baloney Detection
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